Right now, I am listening to “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables. Do you remember when Susan Boyle sang it in Glasgow and shocked the world? I was sitting with my Irish and British friends, all of us breaking into uncontrollable giggles at the thought of a forty-seven year old performing on Britain’s Got Talent. Then, she opened her mouth and the room fell silent. As she performed, I listened intently to the words in the first verse. “I dreamed a dream and time gone by . . . no song unsung, no wine untasted . . .” When she sang the same words in the final at the end of May, I became nostalgic about my past year in Ireland and the United Kingdom. I reminisced about a dream I had two years ago, a dream to study, to travel, and to live somewhere, anywhere, other than the United States. It was a dream that, at the time, I thought was beyond the scope of possibilities.
While Susan Boyle sang, I remembered sitting at my desk at the UN World Food Programme in 2007 and intensely searching the Internet for opportunities. The first scholarship that I came across was the infamous “Rhodes”. If you are reading this journal as a potential Mitchell applicant, you have probably checked both the Rhodes and Marshall websites and met with your campus director for international scholarships and fellowships. You have learned the drill: write and edit a compelling personal statement, gather an obscene number of recommendations and transcripts, and hope for the best. I suspect that, for the Mitchell, you have been advised to visit all the Irish and Northern Irish university websites to find a programme that “fits” your interests, a course that you must somehow align with past campus activities and accomplishments. But, while I am confident in your abilities and intentions in applying, I am concerned that you haven’t completely grasped the effect such an experience potentially has. How can you? Before you attend another practice interview on your campus or hopefully appear before the Mitchell Scholarship Panel in November, consider how the Mitchell has left an indelible mark on my life.
First and foremost, the education that I received at the Queen’s University-Belfast School of Law far exceeded my expectations. For me, the LL.M. in Human Rights Law was a challenging course, one that unarguably provided me with the academic qualifications and professional skills necessary to work for a human rights organisation in Europe. More importantly, pursuing the LL.M. solidified my decision to remain in the United Kingdom to practice law. In two months, I will be attending the University of Edinburgh to commence an accelerated two-year law degree. Without the generous support of the Mitchell Scholarship, I would have neither realised this dream nor had the resources necessary to achieve it.
Through the Mitchell Scholarship, I was able to pursue a postgraduate education under professors who had worked with an impressive list of human rights organisations: the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the United Nations Working Group on Minorities, the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young Persons, the Inter American Court of Human Rights, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Council of Europe and Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. While their resumes appear intimidating, the professors displayed a keen interest in not only teaching but also befriending me. Aware of my status as a Mitchell Scholar, they often invited me to meet their friends and families over dinner or a pint of Guinness.
Another exceptional experience has been establishing relationships with the Irish and Northern Irish people. Over the past year, my Irish and British friends have introduced me to British reality television, taken me on countless tours of pubs, and often snuggled up next to me in front of a good movie. My companions have integrated me to the point of teaching me Irish and British words and phrases that, combined with my Alabama accent, seem to amuse them. I still haven’t worked out why . . .
In eleven months, I have become a member of the Belfast community. To me, it is a unique place, one where the living and the dead are in a state of perpetual conflict. Whether I am studying, travelling, or working, I frequently see the living trying to develop their own society while still being constrained by the memories and context of the past. The two conflicting socio-political groups, the Catholic Republicans and the Protestant Loyalists, each suffer from the knowledge of their own origins, the former compelled by past conflicts with their British occupiers and the desire for a united Irish state and the latter aware of their previous role as a colonialist ruling class in Ireland that reigned supreme prior to the Irish Rebellion of 1916. Through my internship with the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, I have seen first hand the vestiges of these “Troubles”. This too has contributed to my decision to live here, to work here, to make a difference here through my knowledge of and passion for human rights.
It has been more than eighteen months since Mary Lou phoned to tell me that I was a Mitchell Scholar. I can honestly write that I have made the most of the opportunity . . . no sung unsung, no wine untasted. As you are reading this, I hope that you realise how the Mitchell Scholarship can change your life. It is through this programme that I received an unparalleled postgraduate education, discovered who and what I want to be in life, and fulfilled a dream that I certainly did not allow to pass me by.